We play sports to win.

That may qualify as the most obvious statement of 2018.

But, what exactly does winning look like?

The answer is not as obvious as it seems. There are at least three potential definitions:

  1. Winning is about defeating your opponent.
  2. Winning is about growing as a person and a team to become better at your sport.
  3. Winning is about finding joy in the sport.

One of the keys to team sports is to know how to order these respective definitions. Coaches and players should pursue all three at the same time. Yet, athletes often focus on one of these goals at the expense of the others. 

Let’s consider each definition of winning and see how we can combine them to get the most out of team sports.

1. Winning is about defeating your opponent

This is the most obvious answer to the question, “what is winning?” To win is to outplay your opponent on the field and achieve victory. A defining characteristic of competition is that someone will win and someone else will lose. In the coach’s’ daily practice plan, pre-game speech, or halftime adjustment, he usually has this sense of winning in his mind.

This is the most clear goal of competition, but it isn’t the only goal.

2. Winning is about growing as a person and team

This sense of winning focuses on the question, are we getting better? Is the team moving forward and playing to its maximum potential even if it does not always get the “W?” This sense of winning does not only depend on the scoreboard.

One inescapable reality of team sports is that there are many factors outside of a team’s control. A team can be better and play better than their opponent but still lose on the scoreboard. When this happens, what recourse does the team have? If a team believes that the only sense of winning is defeating your opponent, the answer may be “not much.”

When winning, however, is conceived in terms of playing to the fullness of our ability, victory can be achieved despite defeat.

3. Winning is about finding joy

Admittedly, this sense of winning can be abused by teams that lack the discipline to train hard or the will to outwork their opponents. In this case, “having fun” can become an excuse for mediocrity. However, it remains true that sports should be enjoyable.

If players are not having fun while playing, then why should they play at all?

The coach that takes the joy out of sports for the sake of victory achieves little. He may triumph for a day, but at the cost of the greater goods of sports.

Can you win in all 3 ways?

These three senses of “winning” must be kept in mind while we compete. It is a mistake to believe that they conflict with each other. The coach or player can be determined to win the match without sacrificing team growth and joy. Likewise, the jovial athlete with the constant smile does not have to forfeit a determined desire to beat his opponent.

We must recognize that victory on the scoreboard is an essential goal for any team, but that cannot be the ultimate judge of winning.

Sports are not only played so we can win in the first sense of the term. Rather, sports are played to help athletes achieve discipline, acquire virtue, and learn the importance of perseverance and teamwork.

When we achieve these goals, we become winners.